Monday, June 30, 2008

Duel of the Jews Strikes Back!

Duel of the Jews took a nice, long spring break, prolonged by, gasp, reasonably cogent answers from Mssr. Mandel in his Mailbag. But fear not, loyal few B&B readers, because Stewart isn't thinking clearly again. I give you last week's Mailbag. Stella, I'm feeling something approaching a groove...

It appears that a few preseason magazines have the Florida Gators at No. 1 for the upcoming season. What do you think?
-- Ryan, Orlando

As I've said in the past, different people have different interpretations of what a preseason poll should be. I'm one of those who treat them as a "starting point," based on how a team finished the year before and who it has coming back. Most people, however, treat them as a prediction of what the final poll will be next January -- and obviously preview magazines fall into that category.

To that end, predicting Florida to win this year's national championship is as reasonable a prediction as any. The Gators return 16 starters, including a Heisman-winning quarterback (Tim Tebow), an otherworldly playmaker (Percy Harvin), a solid offensive line and nearly every key defensive player. And if you're one of those that likes to "play out" the schedule, you have to like the fact Florida plays just one road game against a team likely to be ranked in the preseason (Tennessee).

But let's not forget, the Gators lost four games last season and finished last in the SEC in pass defense. Anyone who's projecting Urban Meyer's team as national champion is making three pretty bold assumptions:

1) That Florida's defense will improve considerably. The Gators were extremely young on that side of the ball last year, starting as many as 10 freshmen and sophomores, and it showed. With a year's experience under their belt, it's not unreasonable to expect former all-everything recruits like linemen Carlos Dunlap, Justin Trattou and Torrey Davis or safety Major Wright to explode, but will it be enough for the unit to leap from mediocre to dominant?

2) That Tebow will hold up physically for another entire year. Which goes hand in hand with No. 3.

3) That a legitimate tailback will finally emerge. This is not just important in terms of taking some of the rushing load off Tebow but also because Florida's offense, for all its purported weapons, was very predictable at times last season. In the Capital One Bowl loss to Michigan, Tebow and Harvin accounted for 29 of 32 rushing attempts. The Gators need Chris Rainey or Emmanuel Moody to become a threat for Meyer's spread offense to be consistently dangerous.

I'll give Mandel point one, but to me, that's where the Florida analysis starts and ends. LSU survived an injury to its starting quarterback last year. Florida has two blue chippers sitting behind Tebow, both of whom have a year in Florida's system. If Urban Meyer could turn Alex Smith into the worst first draft pick in NFL history, then I think he can survive a game or two with Cameron Newton or John Brantley. Obviously, if Tebow is out for an extended period of time, then the Gators are in big trouble, but that's true for just about every major contender, save for Ohio State and their annoying, quarterback-optional approach to winning.

As for the third point, Florida averaged 457 yards and 42.5 points per game last year and gained a healthy 5.3 yards per carry against a very difficult schedule. If the Gators managed all of that without a functioning tailback, why exactly it is a necessity for Florida to find a tailback this year? Sure, it would be nice, but a top tailback in Florida's offense means fewer carries for Tebow and Harvin. Is that really a good thing? It's surely not a requirement that Florida hand the ball off 20 times.

But wait, it gets better...

Preseason magazines are mostly for fun (and for trying to decode Steele's elaborate color scheme), so there's no point getting too worked up over these rankings. If you're a Georgia fan, however, I'd imagine you're going to be pretty steamed if the AP and coaches polls follow suit. The Dawgs finished ahead of the Gators in the SEC standings last season, beat them on the field and return more starters (17).

Right, because that one extra starter that Georgia is returning really matters. There are perfectly convincing arguments to be made that Florida can be ranked ahead of Georgia. Georgia was a fumble by Vandy away from spiralling last year. The Gators' expected improvement on defense is greater than Georgia's expected improvement in any area. Florida has owned Georgia over the years, so one win shouldn't rationally convince Georgia fans that they have an advantage over Florida in Jacksonville.

We all know that preseason starting position can have a direct impact on the final results. For instance, while I thought LSU was plenty deserving of both its preseason and end-of-regular-season No. 2 rankings, there's no doubt in my mind that had the roles been reversed and Oklahoma had started the year No. 2 instead of No. 8, and LSU vice versa, the 11-2 Sooners would have played in the BCS title game instead of the 11-2 Tigers.

WTF? LSU had the same record as Oklahoma and played a demonstrably more difficult schedule. That would have been true regardless of where the two teams started the year. Mandel really might consider reading his own archives, because he's argued in the past that voters are improving and are really analyzing teams based on their merits instead of taking the conveyor belt approach when it comes to deciding who players for the national title. This, after all, was his reasoning for supporting Florida's jump over Michigan in 2006 when the Wolverines were higher ranked going into the final weekend. If voters can flip teams based in one week, how does Mandel argue with a straight face that they'll remember who they ranked in August and defer to that judgment?

Fast forward to this year. Let's say, hypothetically, the preseason AP poll replicates Steele's, which has Florida No. 1 and Georgia No. 9. And let's say, hypothetically, that it's another year like last season where a cluster of teams all finish with one or two losses. If Florida winds up one of those teams, it will have a much better chance of finishing in the top two than Georgia would if placed in the same scenario, and that's an advantage the Gators have not yet earned.

Or, the voters might just vote for the team that won the neutral site game between Florida and Georgia. Seriously, Mandel, of all the teams to use when you make this argument, you pick two teams who play each other in a split stadium every year. With the exception of Texas and Oklahoma, you picked the two worst teams to illustrate your point. If Florida and Georgia finish with the same record, 99 times out of 100, the team that wins the game will finish higher if the voters are paying attention.

I was somewhat astonished and dismayed at NBC's renewal of its TV contract with Notre Dame. This is not because I don't want to watch Notre Dame, but rather that it seems to be a slap in the face of the parity that the NCAA seems to be trying for. The reasoning being that all else being equal between two schools, isn't the fact that a recruit would be guaranteed to be on national TV for every home game an artificially introduced advantage toward Notre Dame? How is this fundamentally any different than if Notre Dame was able to pay recruits?
-- Darren Beyer, Orlando, Fla.

The difference is, the NCAA has rules against paying recruits, and can penalize its institutions accordingly. It does not have the authority, however, to tell NBC what it can or cannot put on its airwaves. In fact, it would be breaking the law if it did.

Notre Dame's right to sign a contract with NBC -- just like the Big Ten's right to sign with ABC, the SEC's right to sign with CBS, etc. -- was established by the United States Supreme Court in 1984. Prior to that, the NCAA strictly regulated how many times a school could appear on TV and how much it could be compensated for those appearances. Georgia and Oklahoma sued the NCAA on the grounds that those policies violated anti-trust law, and ultimately, the highest court in the land agreed. As a result, technically, all schools are free to negotiate their own network TV deals; it's just that all but Notre Dame, Army and Navy choose to do so within the confines of a conference.

So while the Irish's perceived recruiting advantage may in fact exist, it would be incorrect to describe it as "artificially induced." It actually came about through the most natural means possible: Capitalism.

First of all, this is an idiotic question. Mandel managed to print a question from possibly the only person who is surprised that teams like Notre Dame can turn their popularity into exposure. Second, I have to imagine that the Milton Friedman disciples among us cringed at that answer. Notre Dame has the right to strike its own TV deal because of antitrust law (and the Supreme Court's interpretation thereof). The Sherman Act is not "capitalism." To liberals/moderates like me, it is a reasonable regulation on the free market. To true libertarians, it is an unreasonable encroachment on the free market. But it's not the free market itself!

That felt good.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Boots of Spanish Leather

After every pundit reminded us that form in the group stages doesn't matter, that getting outplayed by shorthanded Turkey for long stretches doesn't matter, that Germany win these sorts of tournaments and Spain do not, and that German size the strength would prevail over the smaller Spaniards, Spain won the European title with a 1-0 win that flattered their opponents. In the end, talent won. The ability to control, dribble, and pass won. The better team won.

In my heart of hearts, I thought before the game that Spain had the better team, but that Germany would play their best and sneak out a win. I bought into the "Spain never win anything" line of thinking (thanks, Dad and Klinsi), forgetting that the last two Super Bowls were won by Manning brothers and two of the last four World Series were won by the Red Sox. It dawned on me during the national anthems that the Germans were the side full of second-place specialists. The Germans had Jens Lehmann in net, the same Mad Jens who got red carded minutes into his only Champions League Final. The Germans had Miroslav Klose up front, a striker most noted for pouring in the goals against Saudi Arabia and then fading at crunch time. The Germans had Michael Ballack, a famous "almost" player (although that reputation is not entirely his fault). The last time that Ballack and Iker Casillas were on the same pitch for a major final, Casillas played out of his mind in the later stages to preserve a Champions League title for Real Madrid against Bayer Leverkusen. Spain's defense was marshaled by Carles Puyol, who captained a Champions League winner himself. Their attack was led by Fernando Torres, who scored big goal after big goal for Liverpool in the Champions League this year. The reputations coming into the game were Spain as bottlers and Germany as clutch, but the individual players were the reverse.

No, I will not let you borrow my Champions League medal.

And so it played out. After Puyol covered for Sergio Ramos's only goof of the match in the fourth minute and Hitzlsperger hit the ball right at Casillas in the ninth minute, Spain dominated the rest of the way. They had just about every good chance. The back line handled Germany's forwards easily (Sergio Ramos deserves special credit for his work negating Lukas Podolski), Marco Senna won everything in the midfield, Xavi was a perfect fulcrum, and the front men consistently made intelligent runs. Iniesta was a constant danger man despite playing out of position (his ball across the box for David Silva that Silva then skied over was particularly sublime) and Torres, well, he was Torres.

Torres's goal demonstrated the best about his game, as well as Xavi's. Xavi is the master of control and accurate passing. He popped up in the middle, took the ball, and immediately put it into Torres's path. Torres then used his speed and strength to overpower Phillip Lahm for the ball in the box (naturally, the bigger Germans gave up the goal because of their one diminutive player) and push a perfect shot over Lehmann and into the net. Lehmann was always a worry for the Germans and it must be said that he didn't need to come charging out of his net on this occasion. He's now lost a Champions League Final and a Euro final by being too aggressive. As for Torres, his goal was the second occasion when he had been more physical than the German defenders, with the first being his awesome effort to head the ball onto the base of the post when Mertesacker was right on him.

As for the Germans, their physical prowess didn't pay dividends for two main reasons. First, they wasted a number of opportunities with poor deliveries from free kicks. Bastian Schweinsteiger's evil twin had a poor game. Second, Iker Casillas controlled his area perfectly.

Random thoughts:

1. How amusing that Spain finally win the big one after they banish Raul. I'm lovin' that.

2. I was really disappointed by Michael Ballack. He had a few good moment, but for a guy who I've always liked and viewed as a big game player, he had a poor match. He made a number of late tackles as Andy Gray astutely noted and he didn't have the sort of impact on the game that we thought. He seemed to be frustrated and pressing. Senna and Xavi won their battle with Ballack decisively, which goes a long way to explaining why Spain dominated the proceedings. Then again, if not for a deflection from Sergio Ramos or a shot into the side netting, we might be writing much nicer things about Ballack. The difference between "he's clutch" and "he choked" is ludicrously small.

2a. I don't know if it's quite fair to blame Ballack. After all, he was a little better than Cesc Fabregas, his equivalent on the Spanish side. To me, the match was decided by the Spanish getting more from Xavi and Senna than the Germans did from Hitzlsperger and Frings. Spain won in the midfield and then Iniesta and Torres had more success against the weaker German back line than Klose, Podolski, and Schweini did against a superior Spanish back line. The Spanish attackers got more of the ball because of their midfield and they were more likely to turn possession into chances.

3. It's odd that Spain broke their international hoodoo after a year in which just about every Spanish analyst proclaimed La Liga to be a disappointment.

4. I'm sure they will have noticed in Spain that the last challenge of the match was won by Barcelona's captain and then the last kick of the match was made by Real Madrid's captain.

5. It's hard to put into words what a breath of fresh air Euro '08 was. Euro '04 was won by the Greeks boring a series of superior opponents into submission and winning matches 1-0 when they converted their only chance of each game. The 2006 World Cup came down to a final between France and Italy, a ringing endorsement for conservative football. Euro '08, in contrast, was won by a team of real skill and class. For the most part, Spain came up against opponents who came to play proper football themselves, thus allowing the Spanish the space to show off their merits. The one exception, predictably, was Italy. The few anti-football sides at this tournament were shown the door early, which led to some really good knock-out games. The one effective way to deal with the Spanish short-passing style (when played by quality players) is the "park the bus" approach that Sir Alex Ferguson took at the Nou Camp. Thankfully, only Italy took this approach this year. The tournament was thus won by the best team.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

La Furia!

Thoughts on the Bad Result:

1. To me, the Netherlands-Russia game was decided by the the Russians' domination in the midfield. I wish I could point to whatever tactical stratagem Guus Hiddink used to make this happen, but I can't. Everyone knew going into the tournament that the Dutch defense was weak, but they could succeed if they were properly screened by Nigel de Jong and Orlando Engelaar and if the Dutch maintained possession. Neither happened yesterday.

2. Andrei Arshavin reminds me a little of Messi in terms of his skills with the ball. He's not quite as fast, but I think his final pass is a little better. Messi has shown some terrific touches and shots before, but I don't remember him hitting anything quite so subtle as Arshavin's cross for the winning goal. Keep in mind that Arshavin is 27 and therefore in his prime, so whichever club pays through the nose for him is paying for his prime and then for the decline phase of his career. That club also won't know know how someone is going to respond when they've cashed in. All that said, the club that signs him is getting the best player in the tournament. The early signs indicate that Arshavin wants to play out the Messi comparison as a teammate.

Without revealing names, Arshavin claims to know of offers from England, but insists his dream is to play in La Liga. "I know that I have offers from England and Germany, but what I would really like is to play in the Spanish League, in the Primera Division," he told the Spanish newspaper AS. "It's the championship I've always followed, I like the football they play there. But, at the moment, I don't have any offers from Spain."

Those offers may soon arrive with Arshavin having been heavily linked to Barcelona following his starring role in Russia's 3-1 beating of Holland in Saturday's quarter-final. Those reports were sparked by comments from the Russian Football Federation president Vitaly Butko, who on Sunday claimed that the player has his heart set on a move to Camp Nou.

I must admit that the idea of Messi on the right and Arshavin on the left of a 4-3-3 is quite appealing. On a related note, I breathe oxygen.

3. In retrospect, Russia's success shouldn't be a surprise. The backbone of this team comes from the Zenit side that destroyed a good Bayern Munich side en route to winning the UEFA Cup. Zenit were the only side in the tournament that could break down Rangers' defensive wall. Russia has excellent players coached by the best international team coach around. Sorry old England ought to feel a smidge better knowing that it was knocked out in qualifying by two teams that are better than their names.

4. I'm not sure why, but my frustration with the Dutch focused on Robin van Persie yesterday. He was totally useless, culminating in knocking a free kick miles over from 20 yards when everyone assumed that Wesley Sneijder, a superior player, was going to shoot. Ernst Bouwes had exactly the same thoughts that I did watching the second half:

One scene in the quarter-final last Saturday night is enough to illustrate the difference between the start and the end of the tournament for the Dutch. In the 72nd minute Kolodin gives away a free-kick just outside his own box. Several cameras depict the concentration on the face of Wesley Sneijder as he waits for the referee to negotiate the Russian wall to the required distance.

The eyes of the world are on him, while commentators reminisce in their commentary box how the Real Madrid-ace has scored from a similar position in the qualifier against Bulgaria and so many times for his clubs. Curling the ball over the wall in the lower left corner of the goal is his trademark. The Russian keeper Akinfeev has already moved to the other side, which increases his chances. Like a high jumper Sneijder knows exactly from experience how many steps he has to take and at which speed to find the perfect mix between the tempo of the ball and the curve.

The referee blows his whistle. Sneijder's brain is sending commands to the muscles in his legs to start moving. In that fraction of a second the eyes of the former Ajax-player notice something strange. His team-mate Robin van Persie hacks the ball unceremoniously into the stand and returns to his position, somewhere undefined on the right flank, where he has created his own Bermuda Triangle for Dutch possession of the ball.

Sneijder is rooted on his spot, just outside the box, fuming, considering whether he can still catch the night train into Germany from the Basel Hauptbahnhof if he leaves the stadium immediately. It takes him more than a handful of seconds to regain his calm and amble into the already crowded midfield.

It is the preliminary episode of a frustrating night for the man who was about to become the star of the tournament, but would end the campaign shouting abuse to everyone around him, seemingly the last one of his team who cared. His team-mates had mostly faded away and resigned themselves to an early exit.

4a. Has there ever been an Arsenal player under Wenger who has lived up to his club reputation for his national team? I'm not sold on this theory, but it's kicking around in my head right now. I'm wondering if players don't look much better than they actually are when playing for Wenger because of his coaching acumen. By the same token, I ought to be wary about Barca signing Arshavin for big money after Hiddink made him look good, but the fact that Arshavin was so good for Zenit is comforting.

5. Tommy Smyth drove me crazy during the match. I seriously think he has poor eyesight. I've never seen someone look at so many replays and simply get them wrong. Andy Gray has exposed all of Smyth's shortcomings. You can see why the two of them don't get along when they're in the studio together.

6. It's sad to me that Edwin van der Sar went out with a ball being deflected between his legs. He played an outstanding game and will be missed by the Dutch. He covered for a lot of defensive shortcomings. Conversely, Igor Akinfeev is a liability for the Russians. Rafael van der Vaart repeatedly sent free kicks right into Russia's six-yard box and Akinfeev was just letting them pass through. The Dutch could have scored several goals from set pieces if their unmarked attackers could have gotten touches on the ball. If the Russians play Germany in the final, the Germans will kill the Russians with set pieces. Ballack and Klose will have a field day. And speaking of our friends in Deutchland...

6a. Isn't it typical that the Germans draw a battered and weakened Turkey side in the semifinal? Germany had an easy qualifying group, the easiest of the four groups then the 16-team draw was made, and now they play a side that won't have enough warm bodies to make its full three subs. Oh, and the Germans are playing right across their border in a pair of German-speaking countries. (Yes, I know that the Swiss speak a number of languages.) At the rate the tournament is going, Russia will beat Spain in the semis and then their team bus will fall in a ravine, leaving the Germans to be opposed in the final by the 1988 USSR side that lost the European Championship Final in Munich.

7. Even in defeat, it's a credit to Dutch football that they were beaten by one Dutch coach and a bunch of players who play at Zenit for a second Dutch coach.

Thoughts on the Good Result:

1. Anyone who thought that Spain were going to win in penalties, raise your hands. Spain haven't made a major semifinal in 24 years. The Spanish have a record in penalties that rivals that of England and Holland. They has been eliminated three times in penalties on June 22. (Incidentally, couldn't UEFA have finagled a way for Germany and Russia to meet in a quarterfinal on June 22? You should be warned that I will be out of control with the Eastern Front jokes if those two teams meet in the final. I was all ready to make a reference to Spain's blown opportunities on Sunday being not unlike the Armada failing to attack the English fleet as it was leaving Plymouth in 1588...and the Eastern Front is in my wheelhouse in a way that 16th century naval engagements never will be.) The Spanish hate the Italians for playing boring, defensive soccer and still getting results, so losing after a 0-0 draw in penalties would have been perfect for Spain. The Spanish also hate the Italians for being lucky, so losing after a shot squirted away from Gigi Buffon and nestled against the post would be poetic.

With all of that context going against them, Spain performed beautifully in penalties. It helps have Saint Iker in goal. I can't get myself to dislike this icon of Real Madrid. He's not annoying in any way and as a former (inept) keeper, I really appreciate the way that Casillas goes about his business. Andy Gray made an astute comparison between Casillas confidently claiming a cross in his area as opposed to the way that Akinfeev let balls ping around his box. Leave it to Gray to make a better observation about a game that Smyth actually called. Speaking of Gray...

2. I loved his attacks on Herbert Fandel. Once in a blue moon, Sir Alex Ferguson is right about something and his feelings about Fandel are spot on. He consistently missed fouls on the Spanish in or near the Italian penalty area. (You get the sense that Italy decided after a marginal penalty call went against them in the match against Romania that no ref would call anything against them in the box.) He also rewarded the Italians' play-acting whenever the Spanish broke for an attack.

3. I often defend Italian football as being unfairly criticized for being defensive and cynical, but the match on Sunday confirmed the stereotype. In contrast to Euro '04, this tournament has been karmically terrific in that all of the dour sides (Italy, France, Romania, and Greece) have been punished for their lack of imagination. Then again, how great can a tournament be if the Germans are going to win it?

4. Spain's attempts to beat down the Italians' wall reminded me of Barca's similarly unsuccessful attempts to beat down the wall that Manchester United put up in the two Champions League semifinals. Spain and Barca are similar in the respect that they play wonderful football based around short passes, but they don't have a Plan B when the opponent puts eight quality defenders between the ball and the goal. Spain needed to either present a credible threat of shooting from distance (and none of the Spanish players are really noted for that skill) or they needed to attack down the wings (and none of the Spanish players are noted as being great headers of the ball). None of the remaining sides in the tournament will set out the stall quite like the Italians did, so Spain should be able to do their thing going forward.

5. I demand that you acknowledge that Puyol played very well on Sunday!

6. Phil Ball's piece on the game is, as always, a must read. My favorite section:

The great thing about Sunday night's game is that the Spanish played it faithful to their own instincts about football, as did Italy to theirs. In the end, for a change, the gods of fortune got it right. When Senna's shot squirmed under Bufffon (just like Arconada's gaffe in 1984) the ball hit the post and nestled back into the keeper's arms. Luck, once again, seemed to be on the side of the pragmatists.

The referee was also doing his best to don a white shirt and officially proclaim himself Italy's 12th man. And as expected, Spain took possession of the game and tried to win it, whereas Italy made a few vague patterns in the centre of the field and tried to hoof the ball up to the awful Luca Toni, who looks even more awful when the service is poor.

Spain have now beaten the reigning European champions and the world champions in successive games, and looked miles better than either of them. At least they tried to play football. As the excellent football writer Santiago Segurola noted on Monday morning, Italy don't' even use the word 'football'. For them it's Calcio - 'something else' In a country so dedicated to the aesthetic as Italy is, football is something else for them - a war, a battle. As such, it doesn't matter how you do it. The beauty for them resides in the negativity, in the locking of the door.

But the Spanish are romantics, and prefer to indulge in beauty (or something approaching it) on the football pitch, given the relative messiness of their urban aesthetic. They would probably have imposed this philosophy before the penalty shoot-out if the appalling referee, Herbert Fandel, had possessed even the slightest notion of what constitutes a foul.

Seemingly obsessed by the notion that the Spanish are cheats, Fandel's assumption that the blatant fouls on Villa and Silva in the first half were anything but made no sense, particularly since if he really thought as much surely he should have booked both of them.

Spain were trying to win. It was Italy who were cheating - constantly interrupting the Spanish flow; whenever a player went down, he looked up carefully to see if an attack was forming, then rolled back over again to force the Spaniards to kick the ball out of play.

Surely, FIFA has the power and gumption to act on this sort of stuff? If a player recovers remarkably within 30 seconds of having required the play to stop, then surely he should be booked? It's not rocket science. The rule of kicking the ball out of play was only instituted in the 1990's to ensure that a player seriously injured could be attended to. Now it's just daft, and sides like Italy will always try to take advantage of the loophole.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Five Quick Questions (Not Including Subparts) on the Braves

1. Has Mike Gonzalez always swayed back and forth on the mound or was that an issue with nerves last night?

2. Am I the only one who has wondered how Barry Bonds would look in left field for the Braves? Or whether this fan base would be the least likely one to warm to him in light of the fact that he broke our Hank's record?

3. If I told you before the season that the Braves would lose their top two relievers and 60% of the rotation before the season hit the halfway pole, what would your prediction have been for the team's record? And was I foolish to be bullish on the team before the year, given the age of the rotation?

4. Brandon Jones and Charlie Morton: saviors? The team was an utter wreck on the road until these two joined this weekend. The Braves are 4-2 on the road ever since. Correlation isn't causation and this is a perfect example of that truism, but I can have my illusions, can't I?

5. What happens first: Chipper comes back to earth or Teixeira starts hitting like we expected? And what is it with Braves players pulling reverse-Blausers and getting worse in their walk years?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Ernst Bouwes on the Dutch

I recommend Ernst Bouwes's take on the Dutch resurgence. A couple thoughts:

1. More grist for the notion that modern players are overcoached and there is an advantage to be gained by gaffers loosening the reins and letting their teams have some freedom. I first thought this when Chelsea started to put on good displays under Avram Grant. Holland's performance under van Basten is Exhibit B. This explanation also makes sense of the fact that the Dutch never produced this level under van Basten. Essentially, Marco tried to force Holland to play the 4-3-3 even though the personnel did not fit. The result were some uninpsiring performances for the first three years of his tenure. Liberated from pressure in his last tournament in charge of the Oranje, van Basten is listening to his players and giving them freedom. His coaching approach is more laid back, thus producing better football.

1a. It remains to be seen if a laid-back approach to tactics will work against a Scolari-coached team as opposed to teams coached by Domenech and Donadoni, neither of whom are especially good at what they do.

1b. The Dutch have already gained vengeance over the sides that knocked them out of the '96 and '00 tournaments. If the vengeance circle is to be completed, then they will have to vanquish Portugal, the side that knocked the Dutch out of Euro '04.

2. Irony alert: the Dutch have a tradition of playing the 4-3-3, which van Basten is violating. They also have a tradition of players: (1) inserting themselves into the coach's decisions; and (2) having freedom to move all over the pitch (hence the concept of Total Football). Van Basten has broken one tradition, but in so doing, has upheld others.

3. Wankdorf. Huh huh huh huh.

4. Bouwes is spot-on when he says that van Basten has figured out that the best way to protect a lead with his average back line is to pile more offensive pressure onto the opponent and get more goals. After 13 years of watching Lloyd Carr try to nurse narrow leads for obscene amounts of time by running the ball and trusting the defense, it's liberating to root for a side whose approach to protecting a 1-0 lead is to score three more goals in the second half.

4a. In case you were wondering whether my whining about Lloyd's policies and procedures with a lead would end after his retirement, the answer is "no."

Euro Overload


Yeah, I guess you could say that I enjoyed watching my favorite team in the tournament beat the crap out of my least favorite. I enjoyed being on the right end of a typically disinterested performance by Thierry Henry as opposed to having to root for the guy. (The fact that he interspersed one great finish in with 89 minutes of sulking just makes the sulking harder to take.) I enjoyed the excessively conservative French being totally exposed. Raymond Domenech, you were two goals down in the second half of a game you had to win or at least get a point. What the hell were you doing playing four defenders and two defensive midfielders for the entire second half? Did you enjoy the whole world realizing that you are an excessively defensive tool when Claude Makelele, the player you should have pulled off at the half and certainly when you were down 2-0, fluffed a shot in the box because, you know, he never shoots?

(One aside: in the same way that Roberto Donadoni goofed by deploying the entire AC Milan midfield after a bad season for the Rossoneri, Domemech goofed by deploying all of his Barcelona players in the opener against Romania after the Blaugrana were crap this year.)

Conversely, I loved Marco van Basten being rewarded for going for the jugular. Up a goal at the half, van Basten threw on Arjen Robben (and attacking winger) for Orlando Engelaar (a defensive midfielder). Robben promptly scored one and assisted a second in the second half. Euro '08 has been a terrific tournament and not just because my two favorite teams - Holland and Spain - have been playing well while my least favorite team - England - are watching from vacation. The tournament has been marked time and again by coaches being rewarded for going for the jugular, as opposed to getting a goal and then trying to make it stand up for an hour. After Greece bored the rest of the continent into submission four years ago, this is a useful tonic. Instead, the Cinderellas this time - Croatia and Turkey - have all advanced while playing attractive football. Yay for progress!

The ultimate sign of progress will be if doddering former powers Italy and France play out a meaningless game tomorrow because Romania are beating the Dutch. The match presents an interesting problem for Holland. On the one hand, they ought to try to win because it's the right thing to do. Strategically speaking, the best outcome for Holland would be to force Spain to play France or Italy, both of whom give the Spanish a complex. On the other hand, the Dutch must be concerned with injuries to key players, especially when a number of their attackers - van Nistlerooy, van Persie, Sneijder, and Robben - have been brittle this year. The second choice Dutch attacking four - Huntelaar, Robben, van Persie, and Affellay - would be more than enough to threaten Romania, but does van Basten risk the brittle Robben and van Persie, knowing that they are his super subs? And surely Marco wants a look at a keeper other than van der Sar since Edwin can't play forever.


Spain have never been noted as the kind of team that can gut out a game in which they are playing below their best, so kudos for getting three points on Saturday. That said, the defense still looks shaky. I watch a fair amount of Real Madrid and I don't remember Sergio Ramos being this vulnerable as a defender, so maybe I need to be paying more attention. How he paid so little attention to a striker with Zlatan's reputation is beyond me. Also, Sweden showed future Spanish opponents the gameplan to negate La Furia: overload the middle and harass Xavi every time he gets the ball so he can't get the pendulum started. Sweden did a nice job of nullifying the Dutch. Of course, the fact that they had to sacrifice their own offensive prowess to do so meant that the worst that Spain would do in the game would be 1-1.


I think I speak for most of the non-Greek world in saying that I will shed no tears over the Greece being out of the tournament. The fact that they went out on a defensive blunder is fairly comical.

Turkey-Czech Republic

Simply one of the best games I've ever seen. The first half wasn't great, as the Czechs completely dominated and created all of the good chances. Whatever Fateh Terim said at the half must have worked because the second half was a completely different story, with the exception of the chances that the Czechs created when Turkey was down to ten men. A lot of attention has been devoted to Petr Cech's howler and it was a colossal mistake, but the larger picture is that Turkey was creating all the chances for most of the half. After the Turks got the goal to get back to 2-1, they were coming at the Czechs in waves, stringing great passes together on a consistent basis. Would the Czechs feel better if Cech wouldn't have fumbled a cross, but they would have surrendered the lead on Servet's free header minutes before. It's hard to say that Turkey did not deserve the equalizer, regardless of the way that it arrived. And then Nihat's winner was simply outstanding, both in terms of the timing of his run and the quality of the finish.

You think a Turkey-Germany semifinal might be interesting, given the number of Turks living in Germany?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Yes, I Really am Pretending that Baseball Does Not Exist

I feel bad about the lack of content about the Braves over the past several weeks. I know that the title of this blog makes reference to the local baseball collective and does not refer to the Clockwork Oranje or La Furia. It's not that I haven't been keeping tabs on the Braves. I just find it painful to discuss them. They're a perfectly good team that have been paralyzed by fear at the end of close games. When the Braves were 0-8 in one-run games, I thought that their bad luck would even out and they'd be in first place within a matter of weeks. Instead, they are 3-9 in one-run games since that time, a total exception to the rule that performance in one-run games is a matter of fortune. If you'll forgive me a lame turn of phrase, fortune most definitely does not favor the Brave(s) in 2008.

The games this weekend were incredibly frustrating. Going into the three-game set against the Phillies, I figured that the Braves would take two of three and head out onto the road 2.5 games out. That certainly wasn't an unreasonable expectation, given the Braves' home form. (The footie expressions are creeping in more and more.) Instead, the Braves got swept after playing the same game three times in a row: three games that were very tight going into the late innings and ended with the Phillies getting the big hits and outs. It really hurts watching the Braves play close games. The bullpen, which is otherwise perfectly fine, can't get a key out. The lineup, which is otherwise excellent, can't get a key hit. And when everything goes alright, my favorite Brave (post-Smoltz) Kelly Johnson drops a pop-up.

So, I understand if you may be frustrated by the soccer-heavy content, but can you really blame me?

Brilliant Oranje

In a tournament lacking for goals and marked by teams putting up six-man defensive walls in front of their keepers, Holland and Italy delivered the goods. OK, mainly Holland. The Dutch ripped Italy, scoring more goals in one game than Italy conceded in eight matches at World Cup 2006 (Italy's matches against Australia, Germany, and France all went the extra 30 minutes) and as many goals as the Dutch themselves scored in four matches at the same tournament. While most teams' use of the 4-2-3-1 has been evidence of tactical conservatism, Marco van Basten looks like a genius for moving away from the traditional Dutch 4-3-3. Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart (or, as Der Wife giggled to herself, van der Fart), and Dirk Kujt looked dangerous when their instructions didn't require them to stick to a wing. Their interplay with Ruud van Nistlerooy was excellent, leading to their first goal and a host of additional chances.

Speaking of the first goal, I have nothing but good things to say about ESPN's coverage of the tournament, which has been outstanding, except for the following: none of ESPN's analysts figured out why Ruud goal was not offside. Fortunately, the readers of the Guardian's minute-by-minute report chimed in with the correct ruling:

Peepety-peep! And that, amidst much contention over the offside rule, is the first half. Quite a few of you have been whipping out your Fifa rule books to bang the world to rights on this one, and yet we still have no consensus. The line: "a player is in an offside position if he is nearer to his opponents' goal line than the second last opponent", which many of you have cited, is neither here nor there, because players regularly receive treatment directly behind the goal and are not considered active.

More clarifications Stuart Lewis has dug out Law 11, which states that: "If a defending player steps behind his own goal line in order to place an opponent in an offside position, the referee shall allow play to continue and caution the defender for deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee's permission when the ball is next out of play." I'm not sure you can say that applies here, though Stuart - Panucci was injured, and crawled a long way off the pitch - actually quite a long time before the ball came back in to Van Nistelrooy to receive treatment. As I've suggested earlier, plenty of players will remain behind the goal in such instances for several minutes to receive treatment, so if this law is to be applied, how long does the defender have to remain there before he becomes inactive?

Yet more Fifa rulebook fun Eric Calhoun cites law 11.11 in the rulebook - under advice to referees. "A defender who leaves the field during the course of play and does not immediately return must still be considered in determining where the second to last defender is for the purpose of judging which attackers are in an offside position," he says. "Such a defender is considered to be on the touch line or goal line closest to his or her off-field position. A defender who leaves the field with the referee's permission (and who thus requires the referee's permission to return) is not included in determining offside position." To be fair, that does seem pretty categorical. Either way you can be absolutely certain that this story's going to run and run in Italy ...

This situation also came up in the first leg of the Arsenal-Liverpool Champions League quarterfinal. The decision was mooted by Nicklas Bendtner clearing off of Liverpool's goal line, but that match also involved a sequence in which an attacker was (or should have been) kept onside by a defender over the touchline. I have to say that it makes sense for the rule to be the way that it is. A defensive team should not be rewarded for a player writhing around behind the touch line. The fact that it was Italy, the kings of drama, who were penalized for Christian Panucci taking his sweet time to get back into the fray, is doubly entertaining.

If synchronized gesticulating were an Olympic sport, the Italians would be massive favorites.

For me, the man of the match was Gio van Bronckhorst. I was never a huge fan of Gio, but he played his rear end off last night. He was the most reliable defensively of the members of the Dutch back line and he got forward to start the move for the second goal and finish the third. Before going onto a pitch, every Dutch left back from now to the end of time should watch Gio clearing off his own line and then tearing up the left wing to send in the cross that ended with Sneijder's near post finish past Buffon.

One thought on Italy: what exactly was Roberto Donadoni doing starting the AC Milan midfield that just finished fifth in Serie A and was overrun by Arsenal in the Champions League? That was a "Bobby Cox in the Keith Lockhart era" decision if there ever was one.

It's odd to pick on anything after a 3-0 win over the reigning world champions in a major tournament on a neutral field, but the match last night didn't exactly put to rest the fears that the Dutch have a somewhat average back line. Italy created a bevy of good chances and only missed out on scoring a couple goals by virtue of bad finishing an excellent goalkeeping by Edwin van der Sar. Van der Sar put on a clinic on proper rebound control that Petr Cech would do well to watch. The central defense pairing of Ooijer and Mathijsen was alright and you can't argue with a clean sheet, but they are anything but airtight. If the Dutch are going to win this tournament, then they are going to have to do so the same way that Barcelona rode a defense that prominently featured Presas Oleguer and Rafa Marquez to a European title: dominating possession and scoring goals.

One other thought on the game: the most emotionally satisfying aspect of the Dutch performance yesterday is that it will change my feelings about the painful departure from the Euro 2000. It's hard to describe how painful the loss to Italy on penalties in 2000 was for the Dutch. The term "national trauma" has been bandied about. For me personally, the game was easily the most difficult defeat to process in the 20 years that I've been rooting for the Netherlands. Now, whenever I see the highlights of all of those missed penalties, I'll think of Netherlands 3 Italy 0 and I'll smile...unless this turns out to be a springboard for a devastating loss to the Germans on penalties in the final.

Other thoughts on the tournament:

1. Major kudos to ESPN for its coverage. We've gone from Dave O'Brien to Andy Gray in the commentary booth. You think that's an upgrade? Also, the 360 technology that ESPN uses key plays is outstanding. They did a great job in the studio of illustrating how Cristiano Ronaldo's presence on the left wing created the space in the middle for Pepe to score Portugal's opener on Saturday.

2. I know that Petr Cech hasn't been quite the same since his head injury, but how does a head injury cause a keeper to lose the ability to control or direct a rebound? Cech was outstanding in every aspect of the game on Saturday except for the fact that he kept spilling shots into the paths of attackers. He's inviting opponents to start peppering his frame with shots.

3. Austria didn't look half bad for a team whose citizens had started a petition to forfeit their spot in the tournament.

4. Leaving aside the whole historical context that causes everyone to hate the Germans, this version of Die Nationalmannschaft is fairly rootable. The Germans play more attacking football than just about anyone else in the tournament. They're one of the few sides that doesn't play two defensive midfielders. Instead, they find a spot for a third striker on the left side of their midfield. They have Jens Lehmann in goal, which is always good for entertainment when he screams at his defenders for allowing the ball to come within 40 meters of the German net. They have two excellent wingbacks who get forward to create opportunities. Their central defense pairing is good, but not so good that they don't give up chances and therefore create some excitement. Finally, they have Michael Ballack, who really deserves a major trophy at this point in his career. (I will pretend that I never made this statement if the Dutch or Spanish make the final.)

5. That whole "France can't score without Zidane" truism just keeps picking up steam, doesn't it?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

It Must Be Idiot Day

So I was driving to lunch and in the space of five minutes, Colin Cowherd directed an interview with Peter Gammons about Joba Chamberlain starting to a discussion about how Boston teams are run so much better than New York teams because the culture in Boston (not the sports culture, mind you, but the culture of the entire metropolis) is based on being smart, while the culture of New York is based on "Trump-style flash without substance." (I'm paraphrasing a little there, but not much.) ESPN is apparently so powerful that they can take a mediocrity like Cowherd from the West Coast and turn him into a Boston homer. Well done.

In case you can't figure this out on your own, here's why Cowherd's position is idiotic:

1. The Red Sox didn't win a World Series title for 86 years. The Patriots didn't win a Super Bowl (or an AFL equivalent) for the first 41 years of their existence. The Bruins haven't won a Stanley Cup since Bobby Orr was on the ice. The Celtics haven't made the NBA Finals for 21 years. I'll grant you that Boston teams have been incredibly successful this decade, but for Cowherd to be right, Boston must have collectively gone from dumb to smart this decade. In other words, if the culture of Boston truly infects its sports teams, then why were its teams (save for the Celtics) such notable failures for decades prior.

2. Maybe I missed the result of the last Super Bowl, but I seem to recall a New York team beating a Boston team. Am I mistaken here?

3. The Celtics are in the NBA Finals because former Celtic Kevin McHale gift-wrapped one of the top ten players in basketball to the Celtics. In so doing, he got significantly less in return than he could have gotten from other teams, most notably Phoenix. In so doing, McHale made the trade to his former team while negotiating with a former teammate. The lesson from McHale's actions? Apparently, the Boston culture that makes its citizens smarter apparently skipped him. Also, it helps to be lucky...but why acknowledge that when we can make grandiose claims that a city's teams are winning because the residents of the city are smarter than the residents of other cities?

Incidentally, Gammons was agreeing happily. What the hell happened to him? Also, Gammons was complaining about how much he has to pay for season tickets at Fenway. Aren't journalists supposed to watch games for free from the press box? Aren't season tickets supposed to be for, you know, fans?

The Old Terence Moore Returns

I had been concerned in recent months that I was losing my mind because I was agreeing with Terence Moore over and over again. Fortunately, Terence has put me back on terra firma with a couple of classic examples of ineptly argued columns. All is right with the world again. The first was this gem stating the case for Chipper Jones over Mickey Mantle as the greatest switch-hitter in baseball history. (Mantle's career OPS+ [OPS adjusted against the league average] is 172. Chipper's career OPS+ is 145 and that's before his numbers presumably go down a little in the decline phase of his career.) This morning, Moore follows his gem on Chipper with
this effort at explaining why Matt Ryan isn't overpaid. Matt Ryan, the quarterback who got more money as the #3 pick in the Draft than Jamarcus Russell got one year ago as the #1 pick in the Draft. Matt Ryan, the quarterback who got a deal worth 20% more than 2007 #3 pick Joe Thomas. Matt Ryan, the quarterback whose only leverage was to hold out and thus to cut off his own nose to spite his face.

Let's see how Terence justifies this one...

Matt Ryan was the wrong choice. If you have the opportunity to draft the next Warren Sapp in Glenn Dorsey with the No. 3 pick overall in the NFL draft, you do it. Instead, the Falcons did the historically risky by taking a quarterback that high in the first round.

We're doing so well...

That said, nobody is overpaid. In fact, most folks are underpaid. Others are within several pennies of what they should be making, including shortstops, point guards, defensemen and even quarterbacks making something like $72 million.

I was an economics major in college, so trust me when I say Ryan isn’t overpaid, OK? Neither is any professional athlete, and there are many reasons why.

Somewhere, the head of an economics department is screaming at his faculty, wondering "how the f*** did we give a degree to this guy!?!"

Here are just five of them.

We’re talking about supply and demand, free-market system, survival of the fittest, rugged individualism. All the American things that have generated cringing through the decades from Lenin to Mao to whoever invented the salary cap.

Does the AJC not have editors? What does this sentence mean? Terence, your job yesterday was to create an 800-word column. With all day to work, you couldn't come up with a better construction than this?

In this country, whatever somebody is willing to pay you, then that’s what you’re worth — and likely more. The economic structure in professional sports is just a microcosm of this process, where attendance records and ticket prices have kept rising this century in the NFL, the NBA and baseball.

OK, so whatever the Falcons paid Ryan is what he's worth. If they paid him $100M per game, that would be fine. If they paid him $10 per game, that too would be fine. If that's the case, then how is that consistent with saying "most folks are underpaid" four paragraphs ago? How can anyone be underpaid if their value is always correct in a free market?

The major point that Moore is missing is that the NFL does not operate as a pure free market. There's this thing called a salary cap. Maybe a guy who writes about sports for a living has heard of it. This salary cap limits the amount that NFL teams can spend on their players. When the Falcons bid against themselves (like Tom Hicks with A-Rod) to shower money on an unproven quarterback because the owner has taken a shine to this little rapscallion, they diminish the pool of money with which they can acquire other players. This is why Matt Ryan is overpaid. He is going to make it harder for the Falcons to build a team around him. Unless he plays like Peyton Manning, the Falcons are not going to get production commensurate with their investment.

That’s why, with the Falcons playing before a stuffed Georgia Dome for the past six years, Michael Vick ($130 million) was Matt Ryan before Matt Ryan.

Ah, so maybe some players are worth more because they fill seats with people who buy $20 parking spots and $8 beers. Maybe some people are indeed worth more than others. So what does that imply for Matt Ryan, who is disliked by half of the fan base as a great white hype and the other half of the fan base as a great yankee hype?

No soup kitchen here
The next owner of a professional sports franchise to go bankrupt after paying a bunch of money to one of his players will be the first. Owners give all of that money to certain players, because owners have all of that money to give.

Arthur Blank, you have lots of money. I need some work done on your front yard. Please give me $20K for this project. You have that money to give. Terence Moore says so. As William Munny said, deserve's got nothing to do with it.

Such is especially true in the NFL, where Forbes magazine estimated this year that five franchises are worth more than $1 billion. According to Forbes, the Falcons are ahead of only Minnesota in total value in the league, but the Falcons still are worth around $796 million.

Not only that, Arthur Blank, the co-founder of Home Depot whose worth is placed at $1.3 billion by Forbes, bought the Falcons in 2002 for $545 million.

You do the math.

Terence, you are going to argue below (quite correctly) that rising salaries have nothing to do with ticket prices. The reason that statement is true is the fact that other factors determine ticket prices, namely the demand of consumers to purchase tickets and the supply of tickets available in a given arena. Similarly, with rising franchise values, there are a variety of factors that cause franchise values to rise that have nothing to do with Matt Ryan's ability to read a defense, namely the overall demand in the economy for the NFL's product. If players aren't to blame for rising ticket prices, then why should they get credit for rising franchise values?

It doesn’t work that way
Essentially, this is how the average fan thinks when — oh, say — a quarterback who hasn’t played a second in an NFL game gets something like $72 million.

How can they pay that guy all of that money when you have school teachers barely making it? The same goes for nurses, law-enforcement officers and others around the minimum wage with oil prices soaring by the millisecond.

Sorry to deliver the truth, but if that quarterback we just mentioned didn’t get $72 million, it wouldn’t translate into higher salaries for school teachers, nurses or police officers and relief at the gas pump for the weary. It would translate into more money in the pocket of that owner.

That's all true, but it doesn't answer the criticism that the Falcons paid too much for an unproven quarterback. In concept, athletes deserve what they are paid because they generate a product that people are willing to pay to see. Falcons fans are verklempt about the Matt Ryan pick because they don't think that he's one of those athletes and because they fear that the Falcons took him because of his steely, Matty Ice stare that caused Arthur Blank to melt like a 13-year old girl.

A bleacher seat or the mortgage
Here’s Part II to our previous point: The average fan also thinks that, if an owner doesn’t give something like $72 million to a quarterback who hasn’t played a second in an NFL game, such a scenario would lead to friendlier ticket prices.


There have been a slew of studies through the years to show there is no correlation between the rise of players salaries and the rise of ticket prices.

Owners traditionally will raise ticket prices no matter what. And get this: Despite Ryan’s supposedly outrageous contract, the Falcons even lowered ticket prices for next season in the upper parts of the Georgia Dome.

Like a blind squirrel with a nut, Terence is on to something here. He's absolutely right that ticket prices reflect the general demand for tickets and not the salaries that a team is paying out. This is especially true in the NFL where the salary cap sets outlays on players at a relatively fixed level. So let's examine why the Falcons have dropped ticket prices. Could it be that the fan base is not excited to buy those tickets because they don't like the product that is going to be on the field next fall? And isn't Matt Ryan part of that product? So maybe spending a fortune on a guy who has done nothing to energize the fan base wasn't such a good idea after all.

Just wait
These things work themselves out. We’re back to the free-market system. For instance: Blank just put a $72 million bull’s-eye on the back and front of Ryan’s jersey. That means before the Falcons’ season reaches Halloween, Ryan has to start, and he has to play well.

If Ryan becomes a pumpkin, that means he wasn’t worth all of that money, but only to Blank. It’s nobody else’s business, because it’s nobody else’s money.

I was as negative about the Ryan pick as anyone and I'm not even staking the claim that Ryan has to be producing by midseason for the pick to be worthwhile. Normally, I would peg year three as the drop dead date for Ryan to be a good quarterback, but with the money the Falcons spent on him, I'm pushing that up a year. That said, who the hell is Terence Moore to say (or at least imply) that I shouldn't be mad at Ryan being overpaid if he doesn't produce? I would like the local professional football collective to do well. If said collective is making dumb decisions with their money and spending a huge chunk of change on a quarterback whose signature game in college involved being shutout for the first 55 minutes, I have a right to be angry. Arthur Blank will be losing money, while I'll be losing out on the emotional payoff that comes with a winning team. I'll admit that the latter isn't as big a deal as the former, but I'm entitled to my bitterness.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A Quickie "Style of Play" Thought on the Euros

In the same way that football coaches are typically willing to punt or kick field goals as opposed to going for fourth downs because it is easier to appear risk-averse, soccer coaches like to prevent criticism by massing their defenses and reducing the chances that their teams give up. It's easier to answer questions after losing on penalties or by a 1-0 score in which the opponent scored on a ball that ricocheted eight times in the box than it is to answer questions after a 3-2 loss in which the opponent scored the winner on a three-on-three break. The former is "unlucky"; the latter is "naive" and "careless." The desire to avoid criticism is especially strong in major international tournaments when a coach has to answer to the media of an entire nation. If you think that the manager of the Yankees has it tough fending off questions from nine different newspapers, imagine what Roberto Donadoni is going to be faced with after the Dutch undress Italy on Monday (I can dream, can't I?) and he has to respond to writers from Rome, Florence, Milan, Naples, Turin, Genoa, etc.

Risk aversion takes many forms. The most common one in Euro '08 is likely going to be using two central defensive midfielders as screens for four-man back lines. You know that when the Dutch go to two holding mids, there is little hope for proper attacking in the tournament. Italy is going with the approach, as are France and Portugal. Germany and Spain are the two contenders who are only playing one holding midfielder. Neutrals who like attacking football ought to support these two sides...if they can stomach the idea of cheering for the modern-day Anschluss. (WWII joke number one of the summer.)

If every defense in the tournament is committed to putting up a massed wall in the middle of the park, then it stands to reason that the best way to get goals is going to be through wing play and crosses. That favors Italy (Luca Toni is great in the air and Di Natale and Camoranesi can get crosses in) and Germany (Klose is great in the air and their wing backs Lahm and Friedrich are outstanding). It hurts Portugal (great wingers, but no striker [unless they put Cristiano Ronaldo, an excellent header of the ball, in the middle]), France (no strikers who can score in the air), Spain (talented, but narrow midfield), and Holland (no wingers now that Babel is out, unless you count Arjen Robben who can dribble, but not cross or pass properly). On the other hand, it could put a premium on great central offensive midfielders who can break down a massed defense, in which case Holland and Spain will do well. Anyway, the styles that teams use to attack six-man defenses are going to be fascinating this summer.